Q. I use red oak for shelving, but am wondering if there is a lighter weight, easier-to-work-with species that would do the job. Comments?

A. Certainly, red oak is a goodchoice for shelving as it is strong and stiff, compared to most other species. Ifwe were to switch to a lighter-weight species, the shelf would not be as strongand would be much more bendable. However, seldom would the strength of a shelfbe an issue; rather, the main concern or issue with a lighter weight specieswill be a sagging shelf, especially if the shelf has lots of weight on it(e.g., books). 

There are several approaches tostiffening the shelf that would allow us to use a lighter weight shelf.


The first stiffening approach isto fasten the shelf to the rear back along the shelf’s length. This will stop the back from sagging, and that,in turn, means that the front will sag much less.  


A second approach is to use athicker shelf. In general, an increase of ¼ inch in thickness means over 50percent increase in stiffness. (This is the same reason why a 2x4 on edge is somuch stiffer than a 2x4 flat-wise.)


Another alternative would be toadd a solid piece of wood to the front of the shelf, such as a piece 3/4 x 1-1/2 inches inthickness; add this piece so that the 1-1/2-inch dimensionis vertical, essentially forming a lip on the shelf in the front. In fact, thestiffness increase with this construction would allow us to use a compositeboard for the shelf, except for this nose piece, and get excellent stiffness.


And yet another (but not myfavorite) approach. I was just at an office supply store and saw 48-inch long book shelves. To control sagging, the shelves hada vertical center support at 24 inches, it looked like two adjacent 24-inch shelves actually.


So, with this introduction, let meanswer your question about species. Hackberry is called “poor man’s oak” as it looks the same as oak(to the consumer probably) but does not have the strength and bending benefits.Hackberry is easier to work with. Ash is also more plentiful and is not asstrong or stiff as oak, but does have the grainy look. For less grainy looks,many people will use soft maple, yellow poplar or yellow birch, plus otherspecies too. If money is not an issue, walnut and cherry are really good andeasier to work than oak.

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